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28 May 2015

I dislike the term “growing old”. At least “going insane” implies some sort of progress

Nowadays, there is no hint of laughter in the language we use to describe the demented – apart, of course, from the laughable nature of the euphemisms to which we are now exhorted to turn.

By Nicholas Lezard

It is one thing, I reflect as I walk to Southwark Tube station in the rain, after a good lunch, to be getting so old that you think the policemen are looking young. It is another thing entirely to start thinking the ambassadors are looking young. I make this observation because lunch has been spent sitting next to the ambassador for Slovenia, and although everything in his bearing and address suggests a man of quiet competence and gravitas, I am frankly surprised that he was not asked for proof of age when he ordered the drinks.

You may ask yourself what a column calling itself Down and Out is doing dining with the ambassador for Slovenia, or indeed the ambassador for anywhere. The answer is: a) and I am mildly disappointed I still have to point this out, it is a free lunch, and b) it is to honour a writer whose work looks intriguing. As my other job involves writing about books and, often, writing about books written by people from other countries, I think I had better go along just to check him out.

On the Tube back home I have a look at a copy of the writer’s book that his publisher has given me. (I had apparently been sent one in the post a month or so ago, but the delivery, as with so much post these days, seems to have been the subject of some space-time dislocation exercise rather than the movement of an object from one precise location to another within an accepted temporal window. Star Trek, in all its incarnations, often makes sport with the idea of people who are nervous about the notion of matter transportation; all I can say is that even if the technology involved in teleportation were no more complex than that behind the delivery of the mail in today’s world, they’d be right to be shitting themselves.)

So, back on the Tube I open my copy of Evald Flisar’s My Father’s Dreams, and part of the first paragraph goes: “Much of [my early life] remains unclear, including why my father after his fiftieth birthday went off his head.”

I pause, rest the book on my knees and stare into space for a minute, then continue reading. “That was all the more surprising because he had never given any impression that he was anything more than the sanest person on earth.”

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Hmm. I have been wondering about this for a few years now. It is around this time in a man’s life, as I have said before in these pages, that he starts going nuts, even if he didn’t look like the kind of person who was going to go nuts in the first place.

Unfortunately, the paradigms and conventions of insanity and how to react to it have changed, and I am not sure why. There used to be a certain degree of humour attached to the idea: “the funny farm” and “the laughing academy” were terms that used to be applied to those institutions which housed the insane; “Colney Hatch”, sitting at the northern tangent of the M25, was the successor to Bedlam, and if you couldn’t quite gawp at the inmates any longer, you could at least use the name as a shorthand in a 1970s edition of I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue.

Nowadays, there is no hint of laughter in the language we use to describe the demented – apart, of course, from the laughable nature of the euphemisms to which we are now exhorted to turn. And also, often, what can be seen as lunacy or a mind ungluing itself from normative reality can only be the result of a reduced frame of reference on the part of the observer. If someone turned to you at lunch when the cheese was served and said, “Cheese is the corpse of milk,” you would probably want to change places – unless you knew that James Joyce was being quoted at you. Likewise, my father, when admitted to the Royal Free a couple of months ago, was asked a few of those questions that seek to establish the patient’s mental faculties. “Do you know where you are?” he was asked in, I suspect, a rather babyish tone of voice, to which he replied, “The Hampstead Hilton,” which he realised pretty quickly had set off all sorts of alarm bells among the medical staff, because none of them was old enough to recall that this was indeed the nickname for the building during, and for a while after, its erection.

So, “growing old”? Not sure I like the term. At least “going insane” implies some kind of progress. I suggest, for the ageing process, “falling old”, which carries with it not only the sense of succumbing to gravity, but some kind of kinship with other, better forms of loss of control, such as falling in love.